Emergent Archives: Digital Apps Edition

The last emerging archive highlight was the Women's Liberation Music Archive, whose headquarters is entirely digital, so it only makes sense to consider now some of the latest tools that can shape digital archives, and how they are made and used. This is especially true with new media that combines reading with social networking, because each platform usually aggregates and archives its own content, as with Twitter (although Twitter could do better).

Two great examples of two-in-one digital tools and archives come from Betaworks, the folks behind Digg among other things. Both take to the digital extreme a scholarly goal several centuries old: how to best organise and store information for easy recall and use later on.


Findings provides an interface to clip extracts from your online reading. Simply highlight the text you wish to save, and use the bookmarklet to 'clip' it to your Findings account. From there it will become part of a universal collection of other clippings, which you can also access and use, organizing each into personal 'collections', making headings such as 'politics', 'technology', as you need them.

In other words, Erasmus is dancing dancing dancing in his grave: Findings provides a quick way to save the most important bits of your reading, full citations preserved, organized under topical headings. It's a digital commonplace book - and one that operates on both a personal and communal level. It follows suit with the projects like Erasmus in De Copia (1512), distilling from the copious amount of books a few noteworthy ideas and phrases. But collecting all that is worth knowing takes up space, and lots of it.
And print alone stretches such compilations of knowledge into the hundreds of volumes, thousands of pages - since each collection of information also must be accompanied by an index with with to search it. Later 17th century projects sought to overcome the problem of replacing books with boxes: slips of paper containing information and a descriptive keyword could be kept in little boxes (like the one pictured above). This allowed topics or subject headings to multiply exponentially, but with alphabetical order preserved for the search to remain efficient.

One of the earliest inventions of this sort came from Thomas Harrison (b. 1595), upstart royalist to the end of his days (1662), who created "The Ark of Studies: or, a repository, by means of which it is proposed that all the things one has read, heard, or thought can be more speedily arranged, and more readily used." Unlike earlier systems which averaged in the hundreds of topics, Harrison's boasted use of 3,300 keywords and growing - he claimed to have added 10,000 extracts on a few hundred topics in 1648 while he was in prison for accusing a Court Justice of treason. Samuel Hartlib wrote of his project what resonates for just about any endeavor to compile knowledge, on paper or in pixel:  "One perfection of it is that it can never be perfect." 

Betaworks' most recent release is Tapestry, a publication platform that emphasizes shorter form writing through an imposed method of reading: 'tapping' (or clicking) the computer screen to propel the narrative forward rather than scrolling or page-turning. Here is an example: Don Saltero's Coffeehouse: Or the Secret History of the Museum

Other authors who have written using Tapestry include Robin Sloan, of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore fame, with his short essays Fish and The Italics, and Craig Mod, who has adapted his amazing longer essay on Subcompact Publishing into an appropriately compact form.

The beauty of Tapestry is that it slows you down, calling attention (and proposing a solution) to habits like skimming that skimp on focus. As Francis Bacon wrote:

"Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." 

What is so exciting about Tapestry is that it applies to a very specific area of Bacon's world of books: the small bite of important information that merits diligent reading. 

When retro-fitted to longer form essays, Tapestry also helps to tighten organization and flow. My tapestry was distilled from a longer work of 5,000 words, and the exercise made editing those 5,000 words easier, and more enjoyable.

As Bill Sherman recently said at the Permissive Archive conference at UCL in London: "The digital is finally beginning to catch up with the complex interface of the early book." This is true for endeavors like Annotated Books Online, to which he was referring to at the time, or the Archimedes Palimpsest. But it's also true that in the course of playing catch-up with early reading and annotating practices, the digital has begun to fine-tune awareness of our own diverse ways of reading.

Projects like Findings and Tapestry heighten the attention we pay to the endless array of variables that affect what happens when we read, what we remember of it, and how we use it. They emphasize the very different routes by which we come to remember something. As Edmund Wilson said, "No two persons ever read the same book". Equally true, is that no one person reads everything with the same technique. 

Title Image Credit: Vincent Placcius, De arte excerpendi (1689). From the Max Planck Institut. An illustration, with suggested improvemens, of Harrison's Ark.

Further Reading: Noel Malcolm's excellent essay, "Thomas Harrison and his `Ark of Studies': An Episode in the History of the Organization of Knowledge," The Seventeenth Century 19 (2004), pp. 196-232